Why it's essential to remember black female victims of police brutality


Ruby Hamad

Recent grand jury decisions in cases of police brutality were met with huge protests throughout much of the States this ...

Recent grand jury decisions in cases of police brutality were met with huge protests throughout much of the States this weekend.

In August, 22-year-old Aboriginal woman Miss Dhu died in the custody of West Australian police following three separate trips to the nearby Hedland Health Campus. The full details of her death are still not known. She had been jailed for unpaid fines totalling $1000.

Last month, 37-year-old African-American woman Tanesha Anderson died after police in Cleveland, Ohio slammed her head repeatedly into the concrete ground even though she was already in handcuffs. Her family had called the police in the belief they could help calm the bipolar and schizophrenic woman.

These two deaths occurred on opposite sides of the globe in ostensibly different circumstances. And yet, the terrifying, violent ends met by these two women share one vital thing in common: they would almost certainly not have occurred had the victims not been black. 

By now, many people are familiar with the line, "Every 28 hours a black man is killed by police in the United States." This harrowing statistic has fuelled the rage and grief in many op-eds and news articles demanding change in the wake of the grand jury decisions not to indict the police officers who killed Mike Brown and Eric Garner.


However, before it takes firm hold in our collective conscious, it must be noted that the line should actually read, every 28 hours a black person is killed by police or vigilantes.

Black American women are not safe by virtue of being women, just as being a woman did not save Miss Dhu from being one of the 340 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders to die in police custody since 1989.

Likewise, being female did nothing to save the life of Aiyana-Stanley Jones. Nor did being a child, for that matter. She was just seven years old when she was shot in her own bed in her own home during a botched police raid. Joseph Weekly, the Detroit police officer who killed her, was last month cleared of all charges.

Highlighting female victims should not to draw attention away from the many cases of male Aboriginal deaths in custody, just as it needn't overshadow the deaths of Brown, Garner, and other black American men and boys that have had their lives ended so violently.

Rather, including women in the conversation is an opportunity to delve deeper into how these and other attacks at the hands of both police and, in the US, fellow citizens can keep happening with shocking, yet predictable regularity. Attacks such as that against 19-year-old Renita McBride, who was shot in the face on a stranger's porch after she had knocked on his door seeking help following a minor car accident.

What these (and other) cases demonstrate is that age, gender, and non-criminality is no safeguard from the danger of being killed or brutalised while black. Those who defend the actions of police officers in high-profile shootings of black men usually try to siphon blame away from the killers and onto the victims by suggesting, for example, that had Garner not challenged police or (allegedly) illegally sold cigarettes he would still be alive. Likewise, they claim that had Brown not "charged" at the police officer, or (allegedly) robbed a convenience store, he too would still be alive.

In other words, the problem lies not in fearful, overzealous policing but in the scourge of black male crime.

However, when we consider the cases of these women and girls alongside those of their male counterparts, it becomes increasingly apparent that there is little a black person can do to prevent being arbitrarily killed.

Tempting as it may be to relegate this criminalisation of black men, women, and children to the racial inequities in the United States, the truth is, the parallels with our own country are undeniable.

Like Americans, Australians are privy to associating racial characteristics with inherent criminality. Look, for example, at the attacks on Muslim Australian women, who, despite being largely perceived as oppressed victims of religion and men, are nonetheless prime targets in the latest anti-Islam backlash.

When it comes to the specific association between blackness and crime, America's trigger-happy, shoot-first-ask-questions-later culture sees fearful civilians as well as police lash out violently at their black compatriots. Meanwhile, Australians appear mired in a lazy apathy that permits their conscience to turn away from the appalling legal treatment of the Aboriginal population with a shrug and a 'What are ya gonna do?'

How else to explain the fact that only one police officer has ever been charged over an Aboriginal death in custody? Like so many of his US counterparts, he was acquitted.

When it comes to the treatment and status of Aboriginal women, Miss Dhu's death is the tragic tip of the iceberg. WA's ill-conceived scheme, whereby those who have exhausted other means of repaying fines can be jailed at a rate of $250 per day, has seen the number of Aboriginal women jailed for fine default soar from 33 to 223 since 2010.

In a testament to the widespread criminalisation of Aboriginality and poverty, two-thirds of all WA women jailed for fine default are Aboriginal.

In Australia, just as in the US, there exists a current of racist victim-blaming that holds Aboriginal people responsible for their own dire circumstances and, in some cases, deaths. Blaming the victim allows us to accept the unacceptable: the segregation that still exists between the Indigenous population and everybody else, the high mortality rate of Aboriginal children and low life expectancy of adults, the deaths in custody, the Intervention, the children that are still taken away from their mothers, and perhaps most absurd of all, the widespread yet fanciful notion that somehow, despite all this, Aboriginal people have it too easy and are given too much.

Two black women died at the hands of the very people sworn to protect them. Their stories must not be forgotten. For it is when they are considered alongside the far-too frequent deaths of black men, that the truth becomes incontrovertible. It is not just fear of black male "criminals" that drives so many deaths at the hands of police or in their custody, but a fear and hatred of blackness itself.